The show: "Ride the Tiger" by William Mastrosimone at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre
First impressions: You can't keep your eyes off the characters in this juicy, funny and fascinating new play that is part myth, part political melodrama and part pulp fiction — or is? When you're dealing with such legendary characters based on Joe Kennedy Sr., JFK, Sinatra, mob boss Sam Giancana and everybody's girlfriend, Judith Exner, the mash-up is especially heightened. The point is not the search for truth among the rumors, FBI and CIA files, and sordid and dark goings-on, but a riveting power play of politics, show business, crime and sex, deliciously done by a first-rate cast.
What's it about?: Mastrosimone mixes tabloid and tragedy as he imagines a tale of ambition and arrogance. Joseph Kennedy Sr. (played with fine patrician ruthlessness by John Cunningham) engages JFK's pal Sinatra (Paul Anthony Stewart) to use his ties to Giancana (Jordan Lage) to swing labor votes to his son's run for president. A double-cross by JFK sets in motion a lethal inevitability of historic proportions.
Rumors, rumors: The point isn't whether it's all true. This is not historic show-and-tell for the perpetually paranoid, but a riveting supposition that uses iconic figures to tell a helluva tale of power, privilege and sex.
Ah, sex: No small motivator here. We first see "Judy" (last names are not used) as "Frank" ends their relationship. Introduced to "Jack" by the singer, Judy begins an intense relationship with the presidential candidate and then, ever-so-slowly, with gangster "Sam."
These opening scenes seduce on many levels, especially Sam's delicate wooing of Judy that is a stunner. Lage thoroughly makes you believe in the sly charm, the playful machismo, the quiet menace and ultimately the ruthlessness of this mesmerizing mob boss, Lind's smart, sophisticated and human performance convinces you of Judy's attraction to the bold, the powerful and the rich — and why men would find her equally desirable.
For the most part all the actors avoid caricature and cliché, and give their roles depth and surprise. Stewart's Frank is cool, just this side of cold, but also reveals touches of naivete, neediness and hurt.
Sills has the toughest assignment, depicting Jack's charisma and intelligence but also deeper, darker elements too, as his ambivalence turns to arrogance the closer he gets to political gold. But Mastrosimone puts too much of the narrative and thematic load on this character and it weighs him — and the play — down.
The show could use a tighter edit, especially in the fact-crammed second act which offers details about the FBI, CIA, Marilyn Monroe, Jack's sibling rivalries, Joe's family histories, Castro, Khrushchev, Dr. Feelgood, the space program — and more! — that pile up just as you want things sharpened. Also, the meetings between father and son spell things out all too obviously.
But Mastrosimone's dialogue is terrific, getting the rhythms of class and underclass just right and packing every scene with tension, humor and snap. There are occasional misses, however, such as when Joe warns his son, "Danger is your aphrodisiac,"
As staged by Gordon Edelstein, the show has a bold, go-for-it bravado that is theatrically intoxicating. Watch an extended scene as Judy jumps back and forth between lovers' bedrooms, or a shocking assault that shows the primal high stakes, or the naked vulnerability of one of the characters.
And the design?: Eugene Lee's set and Sven Ortel's projections nicely evoke the '60s jet-set scene and facilitate the smooth ride of the production. However, the giant presidential portraits in the Oval Office are a bizarre distraction.
Who will like it?: Those who behind-the-scenes dramas involving celebrities, politicians or mobsters. Conspiracists.
Who won't?: Camelot supporters. Single-bullet theorists.
For the kids?: Nope. Strong language and full-frontal nudity. Not to mention a tarnished hero.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Title this one "Profiles in Politics, Sex, Betrayal and Revenge"
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Seeing "Ride the Tiger" on Wednesday followed Friday with TheaterWorks's "The Mountaintop" — which centers on Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination in 1968 — makes for a strange visit into '60s icons shot down in their prime. One shows the dark and disturbing side of power and privilege; the other, well, we'll see.
The basics: The show, at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven, continues through April 21. Running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $40 to $70. Information at 203-787-4282 and http://www.longwharf.org.
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